by Doctor Science
Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism came out in the spring, but I only recently got a chance to read it -- supposedly it wasn’t all that popular, but it still took a while to work its way down to me on the public library waiting list.
The Crisis of Zionism may not have gotten much in the way of sales, but it sure generated a lot of heat. Andrew Sullivan did a pretty thorough job of tracking reviews and commentary about the book -- most of which was negative, to Sully's great disappointment.
My take: Beinart is talking about a real, critically important issue for Israel, Zionism, and the worldwide Jewish community:
In Israel, the deepening occupation of the West Bank is putting Israeli democracy at risk. In the United States, the refusal of major Jewish organizations to defend democracy in the Jewish state is alienating many young liberal Jews from Zionism itself.I think the book's greatest weakness is that Beinart mostly talks about the issue as a political problem, to be solved by political means. He doesn't spend enough time thinking about this as a religious or spiritual issue: the non-Orthodox majority of American Jews are finding Zionism-as-she-is-practiced less and less compatible with our beliefs about what we, as Jews, are called to do. American Jews are not becoming more secular, we are becoming more religious -- but in a different way than Israeli Jews.
I had intended to write and put up this post at the beginning of the Days of Awe, for seasonally-appropriate discussion, but it grew to be over 4000(!!) words long. By that point there wasn't time to have an actual discussion before I would have had to close the comments for Yom Kippur. So I'm posting it now, for an early start on *next* year's Days of Awe.
Be warned that I will be policing the comments with extra firmness -- I'm aware that this topic is one of the third rails of the Internet, with Godwin pre-installed. Historical comparisons had better be supported by historical evidence, not just by your feelings.
Four different shofar calls are sounded on Rosh Hashanah; you can hear them in this YouTube video. The Yom Kippur service ends with the long blast, Tekiah Gadolah, prefiguring the Last Trump of Judgment Day. If your shofar-blower is bald or nearly so, you'll see a wave of red (or even purple!) wash over his whole scalp for the last seconds of the call.
Zionism and "Who Is a Jew?"
The best measure of the over-narrowness of Beinart's focus is that he never mentions the issue known as Who is a Jew? For anyone who isn't familiar with it,this ADL article gives a good historical outline. Basically, every decade or so there's a huge uproar in the international Jewish community: the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel asserts its authority to determine who is Jewish enough to be considered a Jew for Israeli purposes, and rejects (or tries to reject) conversions to Judaism under the auspices of non-Orthodox rabbis. Most American Jews are non-Orthodox, and can recognize that we're getting the message Israel to Diaspora: Drop Dead.
I'm getting kind of radical, here, but I think that if American Jews have cooled their support for Zionism and their feelings for Israel (which Beinart says, and which I agree is true), the fact that many Israelis clearly consider us second-rate Jews might have something to do with it. When your partner in a relationship keeps disrespecting you, maybe you should rethink the relationship.
At the same time, American Jews notice that we could not practice Judaism as we feel is right in Israel. Most blatantly, at present it looks as though around half of non-Orthodox rabbinical students are women. I assume that at this point the vast majority of non-Orthodox American Jews have attended a service where the rabbi or the cantor or both is female. It is, as they say, the new normal.
Meanwhile, in Israel the Women of the Wall face regular abuse and even arrest for daring to pray as a group, wear tallit, or carry a Torah -- all of which are completely unexceptional in non-Orthodox American congregations.
In Israel, Orthodox rabbis are supported by the state; non-Orthodox rabbis have only recently begun to be state-supported, and their support does not come from the Rabbinate. AFAIK, non-Orthodox rabbis have no authority to conduct marriages in Israel.
This is why Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the most prominent and mainstream of US Zionists, can say that
It has been true for decades that Jews in the U.S. have more freedom of religion than Jews in IsraelThink about that a second. Part of the appeal of Zionism is the idea that Jews need a place of refuge, a backup, someplace to go when their religion or very existence is threatened in their native country. But Israel as it is now doesn't offer a place of refuge for most American Jews: it's a place where our conscientious religious practice is *more* threatened than at home.
The Gentleman's Agreement is history
Beinart points out that one of the driving forces behind Zionism is the idea that Jews cannot count on anyone but ourselves, that any acceptance or home we experience in countries other than Israel is grudging and temporary. But, as he says, this is not the experience of American Jews for the last 50 years. As former Haaretz editor David Landau wrote in his special report on Judaism and the Jews for The Economist, American Jews have a sense of complete, seamless belonging in our culture, which doesn't involve concealing or rejecting signs of our Jewishness. Landau describes how Joe Lieberman, a Modern Orthodox Jew who was Al Gore's VP choice (and who John McCain would have personally preferred as his), was "dreaming of a large sukkah" for the official vice presidential residence. For the past four years, there's been a Seder at the White House, attended by the Obamas and their Jewish staff.
This kind of acceptance doesn't just happen at high political levels, it's a reliable factor for all kinds of American Jews. To take a random NJ example, Temple Micah is a Jewish congregation in Lawrenceville, NJ, that holds its services and runs a Jewish school at Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church. This is not a temporary arrangement -- Temple Micah has been hosted by the Presbyterians since its inception more than 40 years ago. Old Presbyterian churches turn out to be very compatible with Jewish services, because they're resolutely image-free; Unitarian churches in this part of the country also often host Jewish congregations in their sanctuaries, while smaller Jewish groups use the non-sanctuary spaces of Episcopal churches.
I'm not saying that anti-Semitism is dead in America -- look at Goldberg's post about the misspelled, spittle-flecked emails he gets about Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and his Jewish plotting ... even though Geithner isn't Jewish.
But it's no longer what it was when I was born in the 1950s: an American Jew can reasonably expect to not encounter anti-Semitism in her choice of college, job, place of residence, or club membership. She'll probably encounter it if she chooses a political career, but it's not likely to be a limiting problem.
In his negative review in Haaretz, James Kirchick admits that
Beinart is right when he says that the world has changed and that America is blissfully free of the violent anti-Semitism that plagues so many other places.But he then goes on to call Beinart "provincial" and "complacent, if not recklessly arrogant" for not focusing on anti-Semitism in the Middle East -- thereby missing Beinart's point. The point is that for American Jews, Zionism is like wearing a cast when your leg isn't broken. To treat our friends and compatriots as closeted anti-Semites, never more than a couple steps from Kristallnacht, is repulsive. That's not prudence, that's paranoia.
Historian Rick Perlstein, in contrast, finds Beinart's description of American Jewish life completely credible:
The notion that violent paranoia must be taught as the moral center of Judaism has persisted to recent timesBeinart recognizes that there's a spiritual problem with Zionism, the kind of "deeply unsatisfying tribalism" that Perlstein says drove him away from Judaism. He writes about Ze'ev Jabotinsky's rejection of the Jewish prophetic tradition, and how influential this was for the first generation of Israelis, including current Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's father Benzion. He also looks at the recent growth of the minyanim movement and other paths for committed Jews who stress the social justice commandments.
It follows that the actual world we kids inherited, in which Jews now serving on the Supreme Court outnumber Protestants three to zero and a Jew serves as House majority leader and the Jew who used to be the president's chief of staff runs our third largest city, and in which Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower can really be only a mirage. "Is It 1939?" Malcolm Honlein, the head of the influential Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, asked in a 2010 speech. It just might be, was his answer. Which is why he displays in his office a photoshopped image of Israeli F-15s liberating Auschwitz. Six million Jews are once more getting ready to die.
This was the moral education that I found so dissatisfying in my youth, as it trickled down to medium-sized Midwestern burgs – a disingenuous muddle of a irrationalism, intellectual double standards, and whiny special pleading.
All of which left me, in my youth, feeling utterly uninterested in Judaism, which to me appeared inherently barren: If you found dubious the proposition that Israel as it existed protected Jews around the world – rather than making them more vulnerable through the injustices it perpetrated – there was really nothing spiritual left.
Beinart's suggestions: weak political solutions for spiritual problems
But Beinart shies away from facing the spiritual issues driving American Jews away from Israel, which is why his suggested solutions are more political than religious. On the Israeli side, he suggests a BDS movement focused on the West Bank settlements, to put economic pressure on Israel to curb them. This strikes me as incredibly weak sauce for a problem that's now embedded in Israeli culture and politics; I just can't imagine that it will work.
On the American side, Beinart wants Jewish support for education vouchers, so Jewish children can go to dedicated Jewish schools, to become more committed Jews who don't intermarry.
Paul Golin points out how bogus this "solution" is:
It wasn’t higher levels of Jewish education that kept intermarriage rates so low in the first half of the 20th Century, and it’s not lack of Jewish education that drives high intermarriage rates today. There are many other, more important factors. Primary among them: the rest of America simply stopped hating us.Even Jeffrey Goldberg agrees:
A new intermarriage narrative has emerged in much of the community, even as the old one refuses to die. The new narrative demonstrates how essential the inclusion of intermarried families is in Jewish life, even in day school communities. In the new narrative, Jewish education is not a vaccine against dreaded outcomes, it’s the sharing of wisdom and heritage that impacts positively on individuals, whether they have two, one, or no Jewish parents. Fear of intermarriage as a motivating factor for doing anything needs to be expunged from our communal institutions, to be replaced by the joy of sharing what we love about being Jewish with all who might benefit.
I'm not even going to try to unpack my complicated beliefs about intermarriage and assimilation and life in the Diaspora here; that's for a book. But let me just say that intermarriage can also be understood as an opportunity.Beinart is also overlooking the fact that among the non-Orthodox even rabbinical students, whose commitment to Judaism is not in question, are less committed to Israel than are their elders, even though they've spent more time there. Their spiritual commitment to Judaism is what makes them less Zionist.
I suspect Beinart is shying away from confronting the spiritual issue because he doesn't feel as secure talking about spirituality as he does talking about politics. Last May, Beinart had an interview-conversation with Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner:
Lerner: The spiritual well-being of the Jewish people requires the ability to identify with the suffering of others, and the mistaken notion that “Never Again” means never again only for the Jews not to ever have to suffer hatred, racism and genocide, has led a spiritual crisis or at least a crisis contraction in what Jews used to be. There is something in the Jewish tradition that would lead us to say, as it does in the Torah, ve’ahavta la’ger, “You shall love the Other (the stranger).” The catering to the “we are all family and should give priority to the needs of our family” which is, as you have pointed out, the underlying assumption which leads J Street to adopt the discourse it does, has the possible consequence of leading the Jewish people away from its own spiritual core just in the way that the settlers and their approach to Judaism does. So this approach on the part of J Street, while it may be effective in Congress, may actually be detrimental to our people.In other words, *smackdown*.
Beinart: I find a lot to which I resonate when you speak .... On the other hand, I have to say that when I look at the Orthodox community where there is the highest level of Jewish education and commitment as measured by synagogue attendance and ritual observance, yet they do not identify with the values that you emphasize. I don’t feel comfortable suggesting that they are in any way in a spiritual crisis. I do disagree with the political and moral currents that are in the ascendancy in the Orthodox community, but can I say that they are in spiritual crisis? When I sit around the Shabbat table with Orthodox Jews, I don’t sense I’m with people who are in spiritual crisis, I see people who are living a really spiritually rich life and a very attractive life in a lot of ways to me—I just don’t see them as ethically and politically where I wish them to be, but I don’t know that I could say that they are in spiritual crisis.
Lerner: We at Tikkun don’t accept the division or ability to separate a spiritual life from an ethically coherent life.
Rabbi Lerner is saying that, no matter how scrupulous they are about the other mitzvot, if the Orthodox are ignoring the commandment -- repeated more often than any other -- to respect and care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, those on the down side of society, for you were strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt, then they're missing the mark, as we say. As Hillel stated, the Golden Rule is the take-home message of Torah, everything else is commentary.
A major theme of Beinart's book is that many Jewish practices and habits of mind developed to deal with being a powerless, persecuted people. Now, though, both American and Israeli Jews are powerful: rich and protected in America, a regional nuclear superpower in Israel. As Rick Perlstein's Jewish experience shows, acting as though you're powerless and persecuted when you're actually powerful just makes you sound whiny.
What we need here is a Prophet
Fortunately, the Jewish tradition is so complex and enduring that it includes plenty of guidance for when we're in a position of power, if we're prepared to listen to it. What our tradition says is that powerful people (individuals or groups) will *always* try to abuse their power, you can count on it. Jewish rulers are not exempt, not at all. As Beinart points out, we celebrate Hanukah as a triumph over outside oppression, but maybe we should be joining it to learning about the Hasmoneans and their failure to live up to our glorious, hopeful expectations.
What the Jewish tradition says we need when we're powerful is a prophet. A prophet isn't a magician or fortune-teller, whose main job is to "tell the future". A prophet's job is to comfort the afflicted, as has been too often the case over the last two millennia. But once we're comfortable, the prophet's job is to afflict *us*.
8 And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’[Via slacktivist's Sunday Favorites tag.]
11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. 12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.
13 “‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty. 14 ‘I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land they left behind them was so desolate that no one traveled through it. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate.’”
The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. It also became clear to me that in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.This is what Israel, and Judaism in general, needs: a prophet. Zionism has a spiritual problem, it needs a spiritual solution more than the economic/political ones Beinart prescribes.
And specifically, what we have here is a falling-away from the commandments, a missing the mitzvot mark. So what we need is a prophet from within the Orthodox community, whether Israeli or American: someone who studies and practices all the ritual mitzvot, and who can authoritatively talk about the ve’ahavta la’ger mitzvah, too.
In the Tikkun interview, Beinart said of Orthodox Jews that "I don’t feel comfortable suggesting that they are in any way in a spiritual crisis." Respectfully, I think he needs to be uncomfortable. He isn't qualified to be a prophetic speaker for the Orthodox, but he might use his engagement with that community to move them toward justice. As Lerner said, the lack of an ethically coherent life *is* a spiritual failure, a falling away, missing the mark -- something that the Orthodox maybe need to be reminded of.
As for non-Orthodox American Jews, unless Israelis change their direction most of us will continue to be like Paul Krugman, who admitted:
The truth is that like many liberal American Jews — and most American Jews are still liberal — I basically avoid thinking about where Israel is going. It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide — and that’s bad for Jews everywhere, not to mention the world. But I have other battles to fight, and to say anything to that effect is to bring yourself under intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.
Not all Jews who wander are lost
I admit I'm not a "native informant" for American Jews. As I've said before, I was brought up as a Christian (Catholic/Lutheran). I've only been attending Jewish services for about 20 years, and those mostly in Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, or Reform congregations; my husband grew up in The Atlanta Temple congregation, a deeply Reform group.
Whenever I'm in an internet discussion about American Jewish/Israel relations, sooner or later an Israeli will pop up to tell me that it doesn't matter what non-Orthodox American Jews believe, our religion is dying out due to secularism, intermarriage, and LGBT acceptance. In my admittedly limited experience, non-Orthodox Jewish America is going through an exuberant renaissance of spirituality, observance, and liturgical practice.
One example: when she was at Wesleyan, Sprog the Elder participated in a program for adult B'nai Mitzvot, in which students who for one reason or another hadn't had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah at age 13 were able to study Hebrew and be called to the Torah. She was one of *ten* B'nai Mitzvot called up that year, every one of them with a level of thoughtful spiritual commitment that 13-year-olds cannot match. It was also a transformative experience for the Wesleyan Jewish community, who all had to pitch in to tutor so many students and to organize their heartfelt celebration. I would urge every college Hillel to look into a B'nai Mitzvah program: it's a great way to get young people committed or re-committed to Judaism, at a time in their lives when they're most likely to be thinking about spiritual issues, and also when they're in a setting where studying is the norm.
Another example: I've linked before to Rachel Barenblatt, the Velveteen Rabbi. Reb Rachel was trained for the rabbinate through ALEPH's Rabbinic Program, which has a large distance-learning component. It took many years for her to be able to "play with the real rabbis", but even before that she wrote a Hagaddah (we've been mining it for years, taking elements for our own family Hagaddah), and a collection of miscarriage poems that would be valuable for pastoral counselors of any religion
On the third hand: a USA Today article from last year's High Holidays, about Judaism without God:
"Atheism and Judaism are not contradictory, so to have an atheist in a Jewish congregation isn't an issue or a challenge or a problem," Shrogin[, an observant Jewish atheist,] said. "It is par for the course. That is what Judaism is. It is our tradition to question God from top to bottom."American Judaism can be a spiritual home for atheists because not even Orthodoxy is truly a -doxy, a system about what to *believe* -- it is Orthopraxy, a system about what to *do*. In Israel itself, it seems that no more than half of the Jews are "believers", while the rest are outside the religious fold, as "secularists". In America, Jacob's tent can hold *all* kinds.
Atheism is entrenched in American Judaism. In researching their book American Grace, authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that half of all American Jews doubt God's existence. In other groups, that number is between 10 and 15 percent.
Blessed by conditions more favorable than any Diaspora generation has ever know, committed, progressive young American Jews are creating a religious life perfectly tailored to their values and tastes. Focusing on the nasty, messy, frightening debate over Israel's future only disrupts the dream.In my limited experience, these committed Jews are having a wrestling match with the idea of Jerusalem, and their general conclusion is: our ideal spiritual home is Zion, an idea or heaven or otherworldly concept. Eretz Israel, the physical land of Israel, is a sign of Zion, it is not Zion itself -- just as the words we use for G-d -- "Adonai" or "HaShem" or "Yah" or whatever -- are placeholders for the True, ineffable Name, which we do not speak and which may even be unspeakable. Similarly, anything we reverence too much, as though it is G-d, can become an idol, a fetish -- even the Temple, or the Torah, or the Talmud, or Eretz Israel. They give us the illusion of certainty and security, when there’s only One Who truly counts, and Who is the security of the Jewish people and faith.
It is a lovely dream, and an abdication. ... Jewish liturgy itself, if taken seriously, requires wrestling with what Jews make of their return to the land of Israel.
For me, I think of the Jewish people as though we're still in the desert, traveling together in an uncertain world. Wandering perhaps, but not lost, following a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
In this piece, Brynjegard-Bialik cut up images of The Watchers, a 1960s Marvel Comics extraterrestrial race that teams up with the Fantastic Four. Watchers were meant to just observe mankind, but most often became involved.
“For many people there is such ambiguity about God.” Brynjegard-Bialik said. In ancient Israel, “God was constantly involved in the people’s lives, performing miracles, talking to prophets. This piece asks, how do we see God’s presence in our lives now? Is God involved? Is God a Watcher. Is God a pillar of fire?”